Students assume psychology is less scientific/important than the natural sciences, says study with scientific limitations

Students see test tubes as more scientific than questionnaires

Despite over 130 years passing since the opening of its first laboratory, psychology still struggles to be taken seriously as a science. A new paper by psychologists in the USA suggests this is due in part to superficial assumptions made about the subject matter and methods of behavioural science.

Douglas Krull and David Silvera asked 73 college students (49 women) to rate various topics and pieces of equipment on a 9-point scale in terms of how scientific they thought they were. On average, the students consistently rated topics from the natural sciences (e.g. brain, solar flares), and natural science equipment (e.g. microscope, magnetic resonance imaging) as more scientific than behavioural science topics and equipment (e.g. attitudes and questionnaires) – the average ratings were 7.86, 5.06, 7 and 4.34, respectively.

A follow-up study involving 71 more college students was similar but this time students rated the scientific status of 20 brief scenarios. These varied according to whether the topic was natural or behavioural science and whether the equipment used was natural or behavioural (e.g. “Dr Thompson studies cancer. To do this research, Dr Thompson uses interviews” is an example of a natural science topic using behavioural science methods.) Natural science topics and equipment were again rated as more scientific than their behavioural science counterparts. And this was additive, so that natural science topics studied with natural science methods were assumed to be the most scientific of all.

A third and final study was almost identical but this time the 94 college students revealed their belief that the natural sciences are more important than the behavioural sciences. “Even though the scientific enterprise is defined by its method, people seem to be influenced by the content of the research,” Krull and Silvera concluded. They added that this could have serious adverse consequences including students interested in science not going into psychology; psychology findings not being taken seriously; and funding being diverted from psychology to other sciences. “Misperceptions of science have the potential to hinder research and applications of research that could otherwise produce positive changes in society,” they said.

Unfortunately for a paper on the reputation of psychological science, the paper contains a series of serious scientific limitations. For instance, not only are all three samples restricted to college students, we’re also told nothing about the background of these students; not even whether they were humanities or science students. There is also no detail on how the students construed the meaning of “scientific”. If students assume the meaning of scientific has more to do with subject matter than with method then the findings from the first two studies are simply tautological.

Apart from a couple of exceptions, we are also given no information on how the researchers categorised their list of topics and equipment as belonging either to natural or behavioural science. Sometimes it’s obvious, but not always. For instance, how was “computer programmes” categorised? Where the categorisation is revealed it doesn’t always seem justified. Is “the brain” exclusively a natural science topic and not a behavioural science topic? In truth psychologists often make inferences about the brain based on behavioural data. Obviously carving up scientific disciplines is a tricky business, but the issue is not really addressed by Krull and Silvera. In terms of terminology, their paper starts off distinguishing between natural and behavioural science, with psychology given as an example of a behavioural science. Their discussion then focuses largely on psychology.

Lastly, it’s unfortunate that Krull and Silvera more than once refer to the seductive allure of brain scans as an example of the way that people are swayed by the superficial merit of natural science. Presumably they wrote their paper before the seductive allure of brain scans was thoroughly debunked earlier this year. They can’t be blamed for not seeing into the future, but it was perhaps scientifically naive to place so much faith in a single study.


Douglas S. Krull and David H. Silvera (2013). The stereotyping of science: superficial details influence perceptions of what is scientific. Journal of Applied Social Psychology DOI: 10.1111/jasp.12118

–Further reading–
Child’s play! The developmental roots of the misconception that psychology is easy
From The Psychologist magazine news archive: A US psychologist has urged the psychological community to do more to challenge the public’s scepticism of our science.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

8 thoughts on “Students assume psychology is less scientific/important than the natural sciences, says study with scientific limitations”

  1. Interesting. I think the biggest challenge people have is that, when it comes to science, they like hard-black-and-white facts. Because psychology of the nature of psychology and the nature of what it studies, there are never any solid answers. We are too complex for that.

  2. Erm, I'm an active, academic psychology researcher and I think attitudes and questionnaires are less important than brains and solar flares. Maybe it reflects a bias towards my own cognitive research area and away from what I consider the “fluffier” a scientific end of psychology… But it doesn't make it any less true that I – as a psych researcher – agree wholeheartedly with those questionnaire items at least.

    @Kaitlyn – I'm really not sure where you're coming from when you say there are “no solid answers” in psychology. They're as solid as any other science, derived from framing, testing and retesting hypotheses (though see recent social psych scandals for what happens when this procedure isn't properly followed). Could you explain?

  3. There is only natural science. And psychology is that, consistent and compatible with the principles of its older cousins. Behavior is as natural a phenomenon as rolling balls down inclined planes.
    Dr. Gary G

  4. In my personal opinion, I think an aversion to psychology as less scientific stems from a belief that free will exists, which I've come to the conclusion doesn't.

  5. I wonder if the reason psychology isn't taken as seriously as other disciplines because of all the false information that exists?

    It seems that there are many of vocal “professionals” in psychology and other social sciences who seem to have little understanding of real human behavior, and while many people may not be able to readily refute these professionals, most know when they're being told something which does not resemble reality.

    Indeed I think a lot of very good research goes largely ignored, whereas questionable research, but politically framed, dominates most science media, including psychology.

  6. Perhaps if psychology was practised by folk with an undertstanding of basic science rather than from arts backgrounds, and if it was practised as a proper bottom-up science, rather than top-down, it might become a science.
    Having come from a biochemical science background and being put into an arts department to do my “BSc” in psychology, I was utterly horrified to discover that I was not learning any science at all. My lecturers did not understand my work. They were not qualified to.
    You don't get to be a science just because you put “complicated things like numbers” into it. You need to understand what they mean first, what the confounding variables are, and how many tails your test should have in the first place.
    One should not make assumptions that a “mind” exists in the first place.
    Dualsim prevailed, despite the denial .

  7. I am not sure where you studied Psychology, but from your description I would seriously consider asking for a refund. If someone had tried sending me to an arts department for my degree I would have walked out there and then. Your experience was clearly not representative of the subject as a whole.

    Gary Smith

  8. I think that the main issue in the public's perception of Psychology is that, when asked about the subject, laypeople tend to think of theorists such as Freud and Jung. With people like that as our most famous frontmen it is no wonder that Psychology is often viewed as unscientific. It's our responsibility to try and educate the general public as to the differences between psychology today and the methods of the past.

    Gary Smith

Comments are closed.